Is 2019 the year of the street protester?
From Venezeula to Iraq, this year has seen protests in every region of the world. In closed societies, the people are pushing to win back their rights and hold their leaders accountable. After years of articles and reports eulogizing democracy, its defenders are saying: Don’t count us out just yet.
Street protests were a defining feature of this year. But the history of each individual movement goes back much earlier. The protests in Sudan, Hong Kong, Iran, and Venezuela are the culmination of years of frustration and organizing. The decade started out with the Arab Spring, and protesters have learned lessons from those protests and the ones that came before. They marched into this year with well-tested tactics and the wisdom of experience.
At HRF, we’ve seen the emergence of a new, borderless community committed to countering authoritarianism everywhere. Each tear gas canister, each arbitrary arrest, and each internet shutdown taught activists something. And this year, those fearless protesters made serious gains.
ICYMI, here are some of this year’s biggest stories from the streets of countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, and a few perspectives on how this year’s protests can carry into the next decade:
In December 2018, angered by a hike in the price of bread amid worsening economic conditions triggered by the country’s loss of 75% of its oil revenue after the 2011 secession of South Sudan, and frustrated by decades of marginalization and repression under the regime of Islamist military dictator Omar al-Bashir — who came to power in a military coup in 1989 — people in several towns across Sudan took to the streets chanting “freedom, peace, justice and the downfall of the regime!”
For several months, with the support of some opposition leaders and underground grassroots organizations led by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), protesters braved a brutal crackdown by Bashir’s secret police and paramilitary forces. They were not deterred by the regime’s curfews, Internet shutdowns and restrictions, and media censorship either.
Among the defining features of the protests in Sudan was the leading role that women had. In March 2019, students at Ahfad University for Women wore their traditional white toubs during a demonstration, turning the garment into a symbol of political protest. In April 2019, videos and photos of 22-year-old Alaa Salah leading a protest went viral and became iconic of the uprising.
In April 2019, Bashir’s former allies in the military staged a coup and took him into custody. For weeks, protesters then camped outside military headquarters in Khartoum to demand civilian rule. However, in June 2019, security forces brutally stormed the sit-in, killing at least 120 people. In September 2019, after weeks of negotiations between the alliance of opposition and protest groups and the military, a joint civilian-military transitional government took office until elections in late 2022. The new government has taken some positive steps forward: it overturned some of the Bashir-era laws restricting the freedoms of women, disbanded unions which had been co-opted by the former regime, and has taken steps to bring Bashir to justice and investigate human rights abuses.
“What we can carry into the new year and decade is that we now know more than ever before where the power lies. The power lies on our side — in the hands of the people. […] Small acts of resistance matter. The December 2018 revolution is a build-up of all of the small and big acts of resistance and struggles since the 1989 coup. We built on the lessons learned from our long struggle. So never give up and keep advocating for freedom and peace.”
-Rania Aziz, Sudanese activist and HRF Freedom Fellow
The erosion of democracy in Venezuela began with Hugo Chávez’s socialist revolution in 1999. Shortly after his death in 2013, Hugo Chávez’s chosen successor — Nicolás Maduro — took power as president of Venezuela in unfree and unfair elections, and soon exacerbated the authoritarian conditions that already existed in the country and pushed Venezuela into becoming a fully authoritarian regime. Maduro was re-elected in May 2018 through sham elections which remain highly unrecognized by the international community. Maduro’s second term started on January 11th based on the disputed elections.
Amidst protests against Maduro’s rule earlier this year, Juan Guaidó, the leader of the democratically-elected, opposition-controlled National Assembly claimed the interim presidency based on Article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution — which reads that the National Assembly president can assume office when the president has “abandon[ed] his position,” arguing that Maduro has usurped the powers of his office by tampering with constitutional and electoral tools. On April 30, 2019, Guaidó pledged to continue pushing for a democratic transition in Venezuela with “Operation Freedom.” However, Maduro continues to hold control over the military and the country’s main institutions.
The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, a human rights group, has registered 16,439 protests this year, and 4,433 of them took place in the last three months. Although the anti-Maduro movement had lost momentum since July, the biggest protest in months erupted in November — the protest was reignited by the resignation of Maduro’s ally Evo Morales in Bolivia, and upon opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s calls to stage permanent rallies. Supporters of Guaidó gathered in boosting crowds in Caracas protesting the rampant corruption throughout the Maduro regime, and the ongoing humanitarian crisis that Venezuela is in, with 90% of Venezuelans living below the poverty line and lacking sufficient access to food and medical supplies — the existence of which Maduro has repeatedly denied.
Zimbabwe’s story is one of resilience. In 2016, Zimbabwe saw the emergence of a popular movement, #ThisFlag, which joined together millions of Zimbabweans in strikes and protests to demand better economic policies, an end to corruption, and democratic freedom. At the same time, Mugabe grew old and frail, and elites within his party, ZANU-PF, seemed to be maneuvering to replace him. In November 2017, these tensions culminated in a military coup that removed Mugabe from power and replaced him with Emmerson Mnangagwa, a man who, despite being known as Mugabe’s number one enforcer, presented himself as open to reform. Hopes were rising that new, democratic elections would usher in a new, free era for Zimbabwe.
These hopes were dashed in July 2018, when reports of vote rigging and fraud undermined parliamentary elections and secured ZANU-PF another victory. Within days, the army fell into bad habits, once again resorting to violence to suppress protests and enforce undemocratic election results. Since then, Mnangagwa’s government has become increasingly violent and intolerant. In January 2019, protests broke out against high fuel prices, and the government cracked down, shutting down the internet and social media and beating and abducting civilians. In August, new controversy broke out when the opposition was forced to cancel a scheduled protest due to a police ban on street demonstrations. Police had arrested opposition leaders leading up to the protests, and violently beat protesters who had already assembled.
Despite the disappointment of the 2018 election, despite the violence and increasing limitations on freedoms, Zimbabweans continue to push back. The 2016 and 2017 social movement demonstrated the power of the people, and Mnangagwa may well find that it’s difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.
Since being elected into office in 2007, Daniel Ortega’s regime has eroded democracy in Nicaragua and cracked down on both political opposition and protesters demanding democratic change. On April 2018, massive protests began due to the government’s cutting of social security benefits. Protesters demanded first that social security benefits are kept in place, but the demands later escalated to Ortega’s resignation itself. Ortega has illegally claimed that it is his human right to be able to run for office indefinitely, while violently repressing peaceful protests with over 300 people murdered in demonstrations in 2018.
In March 2019, after negotiations with opposition groups, the Ortega regime agreed to both free political prisoners and restore civil rights within the country. It failed to comply with both. Given the brutal repression and arrests, protesters have demobilized much of the protests in Nicaragua, citizens are now engaged in dispersion tactics — like walk-outs, use of symbols, or suspension of social affairs — to resist against the regime.
“Protests in Nicaragua are filled with a civil duty. Protests are now focused on strong patriotic symbolism, with the main emblems being the colors blue and white, the colors of our national flag.”
-Edipcia Dubón, Nicaraguan activist, HRF Freedom Fellow, and Oslo Freedom Forum speaker
While Algeria saw small, muted protests during the Arab Spring, millions have taken to the streets since February 2019 to demand a total purge of “The Power,” a clique of generals, security officials and apparatchiks of the National Liberation Front (FLN), which has ruled the country since independence in 1962. Called “Hirak,” it is the most significant political mass movement since Algeria’s war of independence.
Hirak started after North Africa’s longest-serving leader, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, announced his candidacy for a fifth term. Bouteflika had been in power since 1999 when he was hand-picked by Algeria’s powerful military to lead the long-ruling authoritarian establishment in the 1999 elections which were boycotted by opposition parties.
While Bouteflika’s two decades of rule may have brought stability to the country following Algeria’s brutal civil war — which lasted from December 1991 to February 2002 and killed 200,000 people — his regime was also known for official corruption and repression. He was reelected in 2004, 2009, and 2014 in elections all characterized by accusations of fraud.
Algerians, still remembering the violence of the civil war, were determined to be peaceful in their protests. In April, pressure from the protesters and the military forced Bouteflika to resign and hand over power to a caretaker government until new elections in December. Protesters rejected the interim government, which they saw as a puppet of the military and holdover of the Bouteflika regime. They continued to rally every week to demand radical change, despite authorities’ increasing repression. On December 12, 2019, elections were held in which all five candidates had ties to the ruling elite. Former Prime Minister Abdelmajid Tebboune was elected president in polls that saw a turnout of 40 percent and a call for boycott from the protesters. Algerians continue to voice their dissatisfaction with an unfinished revolution in weekly protests.
Since Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997, Hongkongers have regularly protested the Chinese Communist Party’s erosion of democracy in Hong Kong. The frustration of declining freedoms compounded year after year for more than two decades, until June this year, when more than a million Hongkongers from the 7-million city marched in the streets to protest Beijing’s latest attack on Hong Kong’s promised autonomy — an extradition bill that would allow fugitive extradition to China to bypass legal procedure. Instead of responding to protesters’ demands, Chief Executive Carrie Lam sanctioned police violence and characterized peaceful protests as “riots,” planting the seed to prosecute nonviolent protesters under rioting charges that carry up to 10 years imprisonment.
The extradition bill was eventually withdrawn in September, but fueled by worsening police violence, pro-democracy protests that incorporate increasingly creative tactics continue to this day. At the end of November, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy parties claimed sweeping success in a local district council election that became an unofficial city-wide referendum to measure pro-democracy versus pro-Beijing opinions. Each weekend, Hongkongers from all walks of life put on black outfits and masks to defend the city’s freedoms. In Central, Hong Kong’s finance and banking center, office workers in suits gather in the streets every weekday at noon for lunchtime protests. Almost everyday, the Hong Kong police force, once referred to as Asia’s finest, put on riot gear to harass and arbitrarily arrest protesters and passers-by.
More than six months after the first anti-extradition bill protest, Hong Kong police has fired nearly 6,000 rounds of tear gas, exposing 88% of the densely populated city to toxic fumes. Thousands have been arrested for marching on the streets. But instead of backing down, Hongkongers have integrated protests into their daily lives, whether through supporting pro-democracy local businesses, donating services to help protesters, or becoming a part-time protester on weekends.
Unlike the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the 2019 protests are leaderless, yet it has touched every Hongkonger. The resilience of Hongkongers have inspired people from around the world to stand in solidarity with democracy and freedom from authoritarianism.
“Creativity is what the tyrants cannot control, nor repress. As a powerful but slow machine, with its clumsy structure, it takes time for them to react to any new ideas. By creating diversity in our modes of protests, by injecting creativity, we refuel ourselves.”
-Denise Ho, pop singer, pro-democracy activist, and Oslo Freedom Forum speaker
2019 saw Russia’s largest wave of protests since 2012, in response to ongoing crackdowns on civil and political liberties. Reforms announced last year – including a raised retirement age – reinvigorated a growing decline in support for Putin, and against this political backdrop, the timing was ripe for a nationwide outcry. This summer, demonstrators flocked to Moscow by the tens of thousands, triggered by the rigged city Duma elections, which barred a majority of opposition candidates from running. To formally participate in the Moscow Duma elections, prospective candidates must register by obtaining approximately 5,000 signatures – a harassment strategy in an electoral playing field that is heavily skewed in Putin’s favor. But when opposition candidates did gather enough signatures, the Moscow City Election Commission declared their signatures invalid.
Police responded to resulting protests with a violent crackdown, and more than 1,000 have been arrested, and hundreds detained, including student activists. What initially began as protests against the fraudulent city council elections, developed into protests against the opposition crackdown, to demand the release of jailed protesters. Leading opposition leader Alexei Navalny was jailed for “allegedly violating protest laws” after he called for a massive unsanctioned protest, and Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund, came to the forefront of the protests when she went on a hunger strike after she was arrested and barred from running in the municipal elections.
These protests reveal Russians’ increasing weariness over the Kremlin’s socio-political and economic policies, and a willingness to address head-on the growing friction between the government and society. Russian activist Evgeniya Chirikova remarked that this year of protests has highlighted the importance of mass public action, and systematic but patient efforts to push back against the regime, along with media publicity to provide an international platform for these efforts.
In January 2011, after 18 days of protests during the Egyptian Revolution, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was toppled after 30 years in power. In June 2012, Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first elected civilian president. However, on June 30, 2013, mass protests called for his removal as president. Shortly afterward on July 4, 2013, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led a military takeover and Morsi was immediately removed from the role of president. Since 2013, al-Sisi’s presidency has been characterized by massive repression and a widespread crackdown on dissent. President al-Sisi won the 2018 presidential election in Egypt with 97% of the vote by having eliminated his political opponents in the lead up to the election and allowing only one pro-regime candidate to run against him. Most recently Egypt held a referendum in April 2019 on constitutional amendments that could allow al-Sisi to remain in power until 2030.
In September 2019, in one of the first acts of defiance since al-Sisi became president, protests erupted in parts of Egypt with young demonstrators calling for an end to government corruption and for al-Sisi to step down. These protests, fueled by a decline in Egyptian living conditions, were short-lived with al-Sisi’s regime conducting a harsh crackdown on protesters, including the firing of tear gas and rubber bullets. Several arrests were made and thousands of political prisoners have been detained, with the government being accused of torture in its handling of protestors.
Protests began when whistleblower Mohamed Ali, a former government contractor, posted videos on Facebook while in self-exile in Spain, denouncing the al-Sisi government for its corruption and misuse of funds, including the payment of bribes to secure lucrative contracts, and calling for dissent. In December 2019, Mohamed Ali was sentenced in absentia to five years detention for tax evasion, indicating a lack of fair trial and due process.
On November 10, 2019, the seemingly impossible happened: after weeks of protest and evidence of election rigging, Bolivia’s authoritarian leader, Evo Morales, stepped down. Immediately after becoming President, Morales began to slowly chip away at civil and political rights in the country, persecuting opposition leaders, shuttering or buying out independent news outlets, and undermining judicial independence. He’d been widely accused of corruption, and increasingly opposed by indigenous groups. Yet Morales and his loyal support base seemed to have a vice-like grip on power that they were unlikely to relinquish.
The current wave of protests began over the summer as environmental protests that demanded government support to fight fires raging in the biodiverse Chiquitano dry forests. By September, activists grew frustrated at Morales’ failure to listen to the people, and the protests morphed into a criticism of his increasing authoritarianism. Bolivians turned out en masse — the highest numbers count 1.5 million marchers — to oppose Morales in street protests and cabildos across the country. For many Bolivians, this was the last stand to defend term limits and oppose Morales’ indefinite reelection, a struggle that dates back to 2016.
By the time election ballots were being counted on October 20, the presidential race looked very close, and observers predicted it would go to a run-off. Then, suddenly, polling stations stopped reporting. After hours of silence, the official results announced that Morales had won with just enough of a margin to avoid a run-off. Voters were outraged. The next 21 days saw massive, nonviolent protests as Bolivians demanded a run-off. The Organization of American States issued a report on “election manipulation,” and each day brought high-level resignations, until, finally, Morales, too, had stepped down.
Now, Bolivia faces possibly its most significant challenge: transitioning back to democracy. It’s one to watch in 2020.
“Bolivia is a textbook case of the effectiveness of nonviolent protests. While Morales had successfully eroded democracy and centralized power in the executive, the union of different sectors of Bolivia’s civil society managed to win the alliance of security forces, which did not repress protesters. This generation of protesters learned different tactics from the experiences of other nonviolent civil movements, both indigenous groups within Bolivia and pro-democracy movements abroad such as the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong. After 21 days of nation-wide civil disobedience following the electoral fraud, Morales had to resign and flee the country. The main lesson to be learned from Bolivia is unity: it was the unity of civil society groups from all parts of the country, learning from each other’s tactics and putting aside any and all differences, that put the Morales government in a position where it could no longer abuse power in order to stay in office.”
-Jhanisse Vaca Daza, Bolivian human rights activist
Protests against government corruption have been resurging in Iraq since October 1, to which pro-government forces and paramilitary groups have responded with lethal force. This is the widest protest since the new government led by former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi took office in the 2018 legislative elections.
Initially fueled by issues, including endemic corruption, soaring unemployment, and inadequate public services, the government’s heavy-handed response and inability to respond to protestors’ demands have transformed the movement into a leaderless, self-declared revolution, or “the tuk-tuk revolution,” with more than 200,000 Iraqis’ participation across the country. Also triggered by his decision to remove the popular commander of the country’s counterterrorism service, Abdul-Wahab al-Sahaadi, from his post, protestors called for the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi who submitted his resignation on November 30th, but remains at his post in a caretaker capacity.
The demands of the Iraqi people are larger than a mere reshuffling of the country’s political leadership — they expect fundamental changes in the existing political system and a rewrite of the Iraqi constitution that currently perpetuates political sectarianism. As a result of the frustrations voiced by protestors, President Barham Salih called for early elections and promised electoral reform. In late October, the Iraqi parliament decided to form a special parliamentary committee representing all constituents to amend the constitution. The committee held its first meeting in November, and its recommendations for necessary amendments to the constitution are to be submitted within the span of four months. In late December, a new electoral law was passed by Iraq’s parliament, but deadlock over the appointment of an interim prime minister persists. On December 26, President Barham Salih stated in a letter to parliament that he was ready to submit his resignation as a result of this deadlock.
Protestors have faced extrajudicial killings, arrests, and violence by Iraqi security forces and militias amid protests this year. Over 400 people have been killed and more than 19,000 injured since October, according to recent estimates, and hundreds more detained and disappeared. The crackdown has also targeted journalists in an attempt to control the flow of information, which was further disrupted by a nationwide internet shutdown that severely restricted communication and press coverage. Several journalists were warned by security forces or pro-government militia, and social media was inaccessible for several days.
“The Iraqi people call on the government to launch an independent legal investigation into the use of violence against demonstrators and we call on the immediate release of those unjustly imprisoned in this crackdown. Further, there must be no more military trials of civilians and we call on international leaders to pressure Iraqi officials in this regard.”
-Omar Mohammed, Iraqi historian, founder of news blog Mosul Eye, and Oslo Freedom Forum speaker
Starting on October 14, anti-government demonstrations spread across Guinea to oppose what protesters perceived as President Alpha Condé’s attempt to cling to power beyond the constitutional two-term limit. Condé, 81, had once been at the helm of Guinea’s pro-democracy movement. He was jailed and exiled as a long-standing opposition figure and became the country’s first democratically-elected leader in 2010, embodying hope for reform after five decades of authoritarian rule. Condé won praise for his efforts to combat corruption, but his government has since been implicated in several graft scandals and bloody security repression against a series of anti-government protests. He was re-elected in 2015 amid allegations of fraud.
The anti-third term protests were organized by a coalition of civil society groups and opposition parties called the The National Front for the Defense of the Constitution ( FNDC). Tens of thousands of protesters, many wearing red shirts, took to the streets. In response, authorities arrested twelve FNDC leaders, and sentenced them to prison on charges of insurrection and disturbing public peace. Security forces used water cannons, tear gas and live ammunition against protesters. At least 20 people and one security official have been killed in the protests, with security forces accused of using excessive force. In December, despite weeks of protests, Condé announced plans for a public referendum on a new constitution that opponents suspect will pave the way for the scrapping of term limits.
The last major protests that Iran has seen were in 2009. After a contested presidential election that year, there was the Green Revolution during which protesters were met with force by the regime as they demonstrated in support of the defeated opposition candidates.
For the past several years, Iran has been faced with an economic crisis due to domestic economic mismanagement and international sanctions. On November 15th, 2019, the regime announced a surprise fuel price increase of approximately 50% as a way to raise revenue. Demonstrations across the country began within hours, with primarily young unemployed and under-employed men initially protesting the price hike. However, the protests quickly expanded to encompass a desire for sweeping political and economic reforms.
Since their inception, the protests have been met with deadly violence from the regime. As tens of thousands of civilians have demonstrated in cities across the country, the regime has responded by deploying military tanks and helicopters, and utilizing machine guns and live ammunition. A weeklong internet shutdown created a media blackout that made reporting difficult. More than 300 people are confirmed dead, including at least twelve children, while some reports indicate a death toll closer to 1,000, making these the deadliest protests in Iran in 40 years. In addition to the hundreds of fatalities since November, more than 2,000 people have been injured, and more than 7,000 people have been arrested and detained, including children. Many detainees are being held incommunicado, and there are allegations of torture and severe overcrowding in detention facilities.
“The government has shut down the internet because they didn’t want the rest of the world to see the level of brutality inside Iran. The officials in Iran are using the internet and social media to mislead the rest of the world about the massacre. Families of victims are desperately seeking support and justice, which they have no hope of getting in their own country. It is crucial to get their stories out to the world, collect evidence of the crimes and urgently call for an independent investigation as soon as possible.”
-Masih Alinejad, Iranian journalist, activist, and Oslo Freedom Forum speaker